The godfather of Italian restaurants will shutter his Santa Monica landmark after 47 years
By Richard Foss
Ask Piero Selvaggio about whom he considers his competition, and you get an imperious answer.
“I don’t have any competition. Everyone who has an Italian restaurant today does what they do because of what we did. When Valentino leaves there is going to be no fine dining Italian-style.”
That would be outrageous coming from anybody else, but from Selvaggio it’s a defensible statement. The book “How Italian Food Conquered the World,” a survey of Italian cuisine from 1900 onward, covers Selvaggio and his Santa Monica restaurant with a full six pages — more than anybody else.
Valentino took Italian cuisine and made it hip, then introduced techniques and ingredients that nobody in America had heard of. The restaurant championed Italian wine when stores had taken it off the shelves and restaurants had removed it from their menus. Valentino became a landmark celebrated in books, TV shows, and even pop songs by L.A. artists. It was a shock to gourmets near and far when Selvaggio announced that the restaurant will shutter permanently in December, after 47 years in business.
Valentino was the dream of Selvaggio and a partner named Gianni who had worked in other restaurants. In 1972 they decided to open one even though they had little capital. The space they chose was then a German beer bar called Zum Ritter.
“At that time this was a dead spot, with auto body shops around it and a red light motel across the street. The owners were two mechanics who had no idea what they were doing, and my partner stopped in for a beer just after they realized what a mistake they had made. They told Gianni they were desperate to sell, and he called me. I looked at it and told him that this was the most depressing place in the world. He said, ‘With you or without you, I’m going to do it,’ so we did. The rent was cheap, $350 a month, the parking lot was an extra $75. We repainted it ourselves, decorated it with cheap paintings and furnished it with chairs and tables we got from our parents’ houses… It was one of those fairy tales. We named it Valentino after the movie star, but also because it’s elegant, catchy, and Italian.”
Selvaggio is harsh about the food they first served, but it was a little better than anything offered elsewhere.
“All Gianni knew how to cook was Neapolitan Frank Sinatra food, baked clams with tons of crumbs, pasta with spicy tomato sauce everywhere. We twisted it a little bit, but not enough to make a difference.”
Valentino almost went broke during the first month, and was saved by a brief but positive review in the LA Times. From then on they soared, largely propelled by Selvaggio’s charming demeanor at the front of the house and the good wine selection. They may have been the best in Los Angeles, but at the time that was a very low bar.
Then came two fateful meetings, one with a gourmet who told Selvaggio bluntly that the food was no good, and shortly afterward another conversation with an Italian journalist who offered to host Selvaggio if he came to Milan.
At the time, Selvaggio was ready to learn about real Italian food, and that trip became famous in restaurant lore. As he put it, “It changed my life. I ate in fine restaurants in Italy and I decided, I want to be as good as you people. I found a really good chef, and when he came the aromatics of the kitchen changed. There was the perfume of herbs instead of heavy oil, and I finally saw presentations on my plates. It made all the difference in the world, and it stimulated me. I realized that there were better products than we were using, and that was where a revolution started. I looked for vegetables like I had found in Italy, I found people who would grow them, and went on from there.”
Valentino is still brilliant but out of step with a restaurant scene that devalues service and a comfortable environment in favor of novelty. Selvaggio says things have changed in ways that make it unlikely that anyone will duplicate his feat.
“I don’t believe there will be any new restaurants that will last for 47 years. As soon as you open, unless you have a big bankroll behind you, you have a short time to make it. Everyone is looking for the next phenomenon, at a time when the fixed costs have all gone up and the profit margins have gone down. Ten years from now, when we look at this decade, we’re going to see some of the worst practices in the restaurant business.”
Modern diners enjoy and even seek new experiences, unlike many of Selvaggio’s early customers who had to be coaxed to try things.
“The thing that has kept me in business for so long was that I would bring in a new item and tell customers, ‘Trust me,’ and they did. When I put things on the menu like sweetbread salad, I told them to trust me, and they did. When there was a scare about Italian wine I told my customers to trust me and drink mine, they did. This place was my church, and this has been my mistress. I had three wives, and that was part of it. They forgot that our money came out of this, and they only think, ‘I don’t see my husband often enough.’”
The next few months will be a long goodbye, as regular customers stop in for a last few meals and people who have always meant to dine there do so while they can. There will be tears as some longtime customers make their last visits, but as a whole Selvaggio expects to go out on a high note.
“These three months are going to be the best months we have had in the last five years, because we have people who want to come 10 times between now and December. It is energizing for all of us.”
Asked about the livelihoods of his kitchen staff and servers, Selvaggio was serene. His chef has plans to open his own place, and some staff have already found jobs that start as soon as this one ends. For the rest, having Valentino on your resume guarantees good job prospects. They will definitely be the last to be able to brag about that association, because Selvaggio couldn’t open a new restaurant by that name even if he wanted to.
“Almost from the time we opened the name went up and up, but I never thought to trademark it. That was a problem when I was asked to open a branch in Las Vegas, and as it turned out I couldn’t. There were probably 200 restaurants around America by that name, and the only one that filed for a trademark was a pizzeria in Nebraska. This one was grandfathered, so I could keep using it, but I could never open another one.”
He might have kept running the original longer, but an opportunity came up just as he was tiring of long hours, long drives, and the high cost of running a restaurant in an aging building.
“I moved to Orange County because that’s where my ex-wife wanted to live, and now I’m commuting to a restaurant that is huge and expensive to operate – you should see the air conditioning bill for my wine cellar from the months when it was a 100 degrees outside! While I was considering this one day, out of nowhere comes a call from my friend Ron Salisbury, who owns El Cholo in Newport. He told me, I just bought The Ritz, would you like to do something with me? He is opening a restaurant named Louis after Louis Zamperini, the World War II aviator who was also his baby-sitter. It’s going to serve Italian food and steaks, and I’m going to be the managing partner.”
The closure of Valentino will leave only a few restaurants still standing among those that changed the way we eat in California. Selvaggio has certainly earned himself an easier life, but the rest of us are losing a living link to the history of fine dining.